New Year

Gosh – look at that… it’s September tomorrow. Where did the summer go?

Those lazy Sunday mornings with nothing to do were certainly a welcome novelty for a while there, but I guess that – just like every other cathedral lay clerk out there – I’d better dust down my vocal chords and prepare myself for the start of a new term.

The holidays – such as they were with the dreadful weather we all had this year in the British Isles – are now over, and most of the cathedral choirs will be starting back over the next week.

Frightened-looking young boys and girls will be joining treble lines, equally frightened-looking choral and organ scholars will be finding their feet, seasoned lay clerks will be re-establishing their routine, and directors of music up and down the country will be bracing themselves for yet another year of blood, sweat, and tears in the year ahead.

And why do we all do it? Well I guess there’s any number of personal motivations, but at the heart of it we love all share a passion for church music.

Singing with the spirit

There’s a friend of mine – a fellow lay clerk – who doesn’t touch a drop of alcohol during term time. He finds that the booze affects his voice too much. And on the odd occasion when he’s had a couple of pints on a Sunday night, he’s found that his voice has still been a bit scratchy at evensong on Wednesday. So he tends to stay teetotal all the time now.

But in the choral world, he’s pretty much the exception to the rule. Almost all the singers I know enjoy a drink; often quite a lot of drink. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with sharing a few medicinal pints after a big service, to help wind down and relax the vocal chords. But I know quite a few folk that take it much further than that. Some will drink before singing, and will even try to fit in a quick couple of pints during a 15 minute break before a service or concert.

Not that I’m trying to come across as angelic here. I’ll admit that I’ve sung a couple of dozen services in my time under the influence of alcohol. Indeed, last summer I turned up for one choir practice straight from the pub following a 7-hour drinking session (and sang like a badger’s fart, by all accounts). But I try not to make it a regular thing.

Generally, it’s not the best idea to drink before singing. A small amount of alcohol can sometimes help the voice. But it’s hard to judge where that ‘sweet spot’ is, and more often than not you can end up having too much. And while you may not realise it, your concentration is affected, and you start making mistakes.

Another friend of mine used to be partial to a few drinks for Sunday lunch, but he often didn’t know when to stop. And by the time evensong came around, despite his protestations, he was usually in no fit state to sing. Pieces he knew backwards were okay, because he would just sing them from memory. But his psalm and hymn singing would be all over the place, as he couldn’t focus on the words. The difference in his singing between the eucharist and evensong was shocking – so much so that people started to notice, and he was eventually asked not to attend on an evening.

Other friends have boasted in the past about how pissed they’ve been ahead of important concerts. Their justification for this being that, in the midst of a large choral society, it doesn’t matter if they’re singing badly. Which strikes me as a pretty selfish and inconsiderate attitude.

We’re all going on a…

Yesterday was the end of term, and the cathedral choir are now on summer holiday for the next 8 weeks.

Not that it feels like summer. It’s been throwing it down with rain for weeks on end, and it’s also unseasonably cold and windy. And there appears to be little sign of an improvement in weather conditions in the near future.

But weather aside, it’s good to know that we have some time off from our singing duties. I can reclaim my weekends, and do all the jobs I’ve been putting off over the last term. Although, having said that, I’m just as likely to miss the singing as well. During the recent half-term break, I ended up getting very bored, and I only had to survive a week without music.

It doesn’t help, as well, that almost my entire social life seems to revolve around the choir people. And without them, I would appear to be a bit of a ‘Billy no-mates’. So I can only hope that at least some of them are going to stick around in the city over the summer.

A few folk – sadly – will not be around, as they’re leaving the choir to go on and do bigger and better things. And we took the opportunity to say goodbye to them after evensong yesterday. The director of music made a bit of a speech, leaving presents were handed out, and quite a lot of alcohol was consumed.

Of course, come the start of next year in September, we’ll be welcoming a bunch of new people to replace the folk that left: a new organ scholar, and various different singers. One much-heralded arrival, however, looks like it might not happen. Rumour has it that one of our new tenors may have received a ‘better offer’ and is currently trying to back out of his contract. Which would be a shame, as we were all rather looking forward to having a full-strength tenor line again.

Even so, the choir still has many exciting things to look forward to at the start of next term, including two live BBC broadcasts, three concerts, a combined service with another cathedral choir, and three carol services just before Christmas. It’s going to be a fun term. Can’t wait!


For the first time since I started singing at the cathedral, I’m making the effort this evening to go and hear another church choir in the city.

I’m also feeling the need to recharge my Anglo-Catholic batteries with a bit of high-church worship too. And luckily it’s the feast of Corpus Christi this evening, so I’m rather hoping there’ll be a huge procession of the Blessed Sacrament (under canopy, of course) around the church.

I didn’t grow up in the Anglo-Catholic tradition, but stumbled upon it somewhat by accident in later life. And since then, I’ve grown to love the sumptuous imagery cultivated in the high-church rituals. For me, it makes for a much more spiritual experience in church, and (handily) provides the perfect backdrop for presenting equally-sumptuous sacred music.

I’ve not been to this particular church before – nor have I heard their choir – but I did check out their web site a couple of days ago, and the music list seems quite promising – a bit of Viennese splendor and some French late-romantic music. Who could ask for more?

Learning Music

What’s your preferred method for learning new music? Or is your sight-reading so good that you don’t need to look at music ahead of a performance?

There must be many different ways for singers to learn music – either on your own, or in a group setting. Me, I always prefer to look at new pieces in a group rehearsal, because I can then hear how my line fits in context with the other voices. But rehearsal time in some choirs can often be tight, and there can also be an understandable reluctance from some directors to note-bash individual lines.

So unless you’re blessed with a wealth of rehearsal time (and a very patient choir trainer), it’s inevitable that you’re going to be required to learn some music on your own. And I’m guessing different people prefer different methods.

I will often listen to recordings of the piece and sing along to learn the notes. However, there are distinct disadvantages in doing this; namely that you might end up learning someone else’s interpretation of the piece; and also that you may subconsciously rely on the voices in the recording to help set your pitch and timing, and end up not being able to sing your line unaided later on.

Other people may prefer to play the music to themselves on the piano or another instrument – but that implies a degree of proficiency in instrumental playing that not all singer have. And so a few singers use one-to-one lessons with singing teachers to help learn their part – but again, this can be seen by some as a waste of the teacher’s time and experience, which would be much better employed polishing the finished performance, rather than teaching notes. And finally, some people have the ability to hear music inside of their head just by looking at the notes on the page, and as such, can learn music in silence.

As I’m sure all choir trainers will tell you, in an ideal world all member of the choir would turn up for rehearsals knowing the music, allowing them the time to check the ensemble, and add the final details to the performance. But we all know that the world isn’t perfect, and many singers (even – shock horror – some professional soloists) turn up to rehearsals having not learnt the music beforehand.

It is, of course, highly regrettable to turn up having not learnt your part properly – particularly if you end up being the weakest link in the choir. But I’m sure we’ve all done it at different times in our musical careers. I know I have. Lack of time (and sometimes a touch of laziness) has periodically stopped me turning up fully prepared. And sometimes when this happens, I’m lucky enough to blag my way through. And other times, I have been known to go wrong during a concert or service. But at least my lack of preparation has never caused a piece of music to collapse during the performance – something I’ve seen other singers do.

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